Can We Mandate Safety?

Montgomery Journal, MCSM Safety Part 1

By Bob Culver & Chris Conte

We as citizens are quite regularly exposed to the idea that our world is not safe. To some of us this is not alarming, life is accepted as not an inherently safe prospect, life is not a dress rehearsal! To them, lack of safety means some extremely unusual condition has arisen to severely increase the normal daily hazards, where daily activity has been disrupted and unacceptable hazard has been substituted. Others, however, may be more worrisome. The concept that our world is not safe compels them to acknowledge daily hazards, but also to seek to eliminate them all. The question, and the problem, arises when this obsessive pursuit of safety clashes with reality, practicality and personal liberty, creating unforseen and clearly unintended consequences.

By way of illustration let us evaluate the broad question of "safety" as it applies to firearms in the United States. It is clear that improper use of a firearm by an individual is capable of resulting in injury. To begin this discussion we will limit the scope of analysis to the "accidental" injury resulting from firearm use, not criminal mis-use. To be clear right from the start, it is necessary to point out that serious firearm users and instructors in firearm safety, universally teach that there is no such thing as a firearm accident. There are unintended discharges that cause consequences, and since this was unintended it is commonly classified as an accident.

The unintended discharge of a firearm comes about because one or more of the several well understood Rules of safe firearm use have been violated. Rules such as; treat all firearms as if they are loaded, never point at another individual, be sure of your target and what is behind it, never put your finger on the trigger until ready to fire, always keep a firearm pointed in a safe direction, etc. These "rules" are so simple and logical that if questioned on the matter even the uninitiated could formulate them from the known characteristics of firearms and the consequences of mis-use. Intended discharges which cause injury should probably not be classified as accidents unless another safety rule is violated and an "accidental" consequence occurs, such as not being sure of your intended target or what is behind it, the classical "hunting accident".

Presuming that accidental injuries are significant, frequently recurring and of high cost to society, and that they need to be reduced, a methodology of reduction can be proposed. As with driving, sky diving, SCUBA, skate boarding, etc. proper training always results in a safer (and less frustrating and more enjoyable) experience. Indeed, familiarity with objects and actions is at the heart of proper use of instruments and the basis for the first class of perception of safety, potential hazards exist, the normal process of life has not become unduly hazardous and with time and more familiarity potential hazards are overcome.

As with most human activity, the incidence of harmful actions may be reduced by other passive measures, such as by seat belts and airbags. Neither are really needed to operate an automobile and in many minor collisions they may be of no consequence whatever in reducing injury. But in the infrequent event of a serious event, when you may suffer serious injury and you need the seat belt and air bag, they are helpful. When you need them, you really need them and they can be life savers! Conversely, if improperly used they can be more hazardous than the minor collisions which trigger their activation. Much attention is being paid recently to the unintended deaths caused by deployment of airbags.

Firearms are not unlike all other tools, they can be used for harm or for good. Like a hammer they are useful but potentially hazardous and likewise both are basically quite simple and well understood. Firearms produced in the last 50 years have benefitted from the experience of the preceding 200 years and have evolved. Functional and utility impediments have been overcome and inherent safety has been enhanced. The modern firearm is developed to the point that it rarely fails to function properly, after tens of thousands of cycles it will still function perfectly. Today's firearms are reliable to perhaps 99.999% of uses. In engineering terms that's known as 5-9's reliability, one failure in 100,000 cycles. That is not that any firearm will function for 100,000 cycles without failure, that is beyond the expected life of some of the critical components. Instead it means that of 100 firearms, each with about a dozen functional parts, fired 100 times each, a failure to function, exclusive of ammunition failures, is expected to be exceedingly rare. The actual industry experience may be even better.

Occasionally, like any mechanical instrument the firearm will need cleaning and servicing, but it almost always functions fully as intended. Conversely, the unintended discharge of a properly functioning firearm, without the action of a person, is virtually unknown. Even when dropped, thrown, pummeled, folded, spindled and mutilated it is almost impossible to cause a firearm to discharge without the purposeful disengagement of one or more safety devices and the operation of its mechanism by an individual. How can we improve on this?

The short answer is that we can not. Left on their own, firearms just sit and rust. Used and carried by rational individuals they function reliably when desired but remain inert otherwise. Wilful improper operation, however, can not be anticipated or restricted by the firearm itself. This now brings us to the potential of "smart gun" technology and its analysis.

This analysis should not be done on its potential to be developed and applied, for surely it has that potential. Today, almost any technical system can be built, and after potential tradeoffs, implemented and be made to function. However, the desired results and unintended consequences, part of the tradeoff, are not so positively forecast. Each layer of additional control of the instrument will also entail additional mechanisms and decisions made by a once uniquely simple and reliable mechanical device. In to days' age of microelectronics and sub miniature mechanical actuators it is easy to visualize a Buck Rodgers type of sophistication to almost any item. But reality, and the laws of physics, rears its inopportune head in the form of; Battery size, capacity and life; Sensor technology and inherent ability to resolve an authorized user; Dust, dirt and various bodily fluids and their interaction with the above; etc. Previously we had described a system reliability or 99.999% or better. We must now estimate the reliability of the systems to be added to create a "smart gun". Assume a battery has a long term reliability of 99%, the sensor will function 99% of the time, the system will recognize the permitted individual 99% of the time and the mechanical linkage, probably the most reliable part of the system, will function timely in 99.9% of cases. This yields a system reliability of 97.912%. Now apply a little dirt to the sensor, an improper grip, use of the other hand or a second alternative user who must be identified, etc. and assume a very generous function factor of 99% for all this. The system reliability is now down to 96.93%. The details here are indefinite but the implication is inescapable, proper function will be degraded. In the above case perhaps 2 or 3 attempts to use the firearm may result in it not functioning. Failure of the system can go the other way to not prohibit operation when desired to do so. In that case perhaps 2 or 3 tries out of 100 desired prohibited operations, it will actually function.

In the final analysis the failure to function will put individuals at risk. Anyone relying on a firearm for defense against any predator, human or otherwise will be guessing at what will happen when the firearm is used. Those trained and familiar with firearms, as first mentioned in this discussion, will be better served to rely on their own initiative for both proper operation and safe usage. Some will not be trained and not familiar with firearms but because of the presence of "smart gun" technology will thus be depending exclusively on a mechanical system. That system may fail, leaving them without the backup of training, knowledge and ability to avoid unsafe actions.

Now we are ready to try to answer the question of mandating safety. Today we can not depend on added layers of restraint on firearms, be they "smart gun" technology or other laws controlling the availability or use by otherwise law abiding citizens. The application of additional controls, regardless of the actual implementation, will both encumber the legitimate use and provide false security. Regardless of the reliability of future technology, the addition of that technology inherently reduces the reliability of the device. The need for additional safety has not even been addressed yet. The definition of accident, as opposed to willful action still needs to be examined. The current trends of firearm injury as opposed to criminal intentional use needs to be carefully defined. And finally, the unintended consequences of attempting massive controls, all in the name of safety, have not been considered. But that, as they say, is another story.

Robert Culver Is Co-Chairman Of MCSM
Chris Conte Is Legal Counsel For MCSM

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Most recent revision July 1999